Kevin Coval is an author/spoken-word poet who has penned two critically acclaimed books: Slingshots (EM Press 2005), which was named a "Book of the Year" finalist by The American Library Association, and Everyday People (EM Press 2008). His poems have graced the pages of the Chicago Tribune, The Spoken Word Revolution, Rattle, Cross Currents and The Huffington Post, to name a few. He's appeared in four seasons of Def Poetry Jam (for which he also serves as artistic consultant), makes regular appearances on NPR and started the world's largest teen poetry festival, called Louder than a Bomb: The Chicago Teen Poetry Festival.
And as if his resume wasn't impressive enough, Coval has served as an ambassador for hip-hop by making countless pilgrimages to locations all across the globe including The Parliament of the World's Religions in Cape Town, South Africa, The African Hip-Hop Festival: Battle Cry, Poetry Society of London, University of the West Indies in Jamaica and St. Xavier's College in Mumbai, India. Centerstage was lucky enough to catch up with Coval while he was in Chicago to talk about everything from his new book to the late, great Studs Terkel.
Tell me a little about where you grew up and how you got interested in hip-hop?
I grew up in Northbrook. I started listening to hip-hop around 1982. "Flashdance," "Beat Street" and "Breakin'" were important movies for me as a kid. I tried to break early on, I danced on cardboard in front of the convenience store for change. I was kinda wack, but stayed listening to the music. Herbie Hancock's "Rockit," a bit later heard Run DMC's "King of Rock" and was entranced by the fun and brilliance of their wordplay; the circus-like language and juggling they engaged in.
When did poetry begin to creep into your creative development?
Hip-Hop is poetry. KRS-ONE called himself a poet. Chuck D would send me to the library to look up references he was making in his rhymes. These emcees were consciously participating in and exposing me to an alternative canon of verse in American letters, verse that felt more inclusive of the American experience; a working class narrative, not just dead white dudes getting lost in the woods.
Why take on the role of a poet/author rather than a straight-up MC?
I love rhyming and choose at times to use various rhyme schemes and forms in my poems, but for me poetry broadens the possibility of my poetic. I sometimes, while writing rhymes, feel trapped by 4/4 time, and there are amazing emcees who break that time, but for me, the freedom on the verse, of the blank page, of recording a story for my life and the lives around me, seems best suited for a poem. I do, however, feel my responsibility is to still move the crowd. Like Rakim said, this is what it means to MC, to reach people where they are at.
There seems to be a fine line between spoken-word and rap. Draw the line for me.
There is and isn't a line. Both are the same ancient forms of oral story-telling, all indigenous traditions tell and retell their histories. Rappers are poets, poets are spoken-word artists, spoken-word artists are emcees and backwards from there. And in all these forms, including traditional canonical poets, there are writers who take their craft seriously and excel, and there is a whole lot of wackness everywhere. And this is true in all forms. There are a billion wack dance recitals, but then there is Wakka from the Brickheadz or other amazing dancers. The idea of movement, of what is possible with the body is transformed. Language is common, but to hear how Lil' Wayne pulls apart the sounds of words, or how Ang 13 splits styles and elevates rhyme to a new-school blues, the idea of wordplay and the musicality of language is altered and advanced.
You're an ambassador for hip-hop, with your visits to universities and different countries. How has academia accepted your work as a whole?
Academia is always late to the party. That's part of its role, to preserve, but the new is often happening outside its walls. I teach colleges that the freshest culture happens by and large outside the institutions when people create for the sake of creation, not degrees.
Tell me a little about your relationship with Def Poetry Jam, and how that came to fruition.
In 2000 or 2001, before the HBO show, there was a 12-city tour. In each city there was a poetry slam and a showcase. When the folks from Def Jam came to Chicago, I read in the showcase at the MCA, and after the show HBO producers whispered in my ear that there would be this show on HBO and to stay in touch. I never really believed them, but every now and again I'd drop Deb Pointer, one of the producers, a line just saying "what's up." She said it was all coming together and eventually they got the go-ahead to film four episodes for the first season. I appeared on that season and four of the six seasons in all.
I see that you have a wonderful quote from Studs Terkel on your bio page. Were you able to develop a friendship with him before he passed? Any words on Studs himself?
I am humbled what Studs said about me and the book, he was very generous. I have been radically shaped by his belief in the elevation of the personal narrative and his radically egalitarian views of people's stories. Whether the mayor or a nurse or custodian or bartender, he thought all folks were equally relevant and interesting. I met him a couple of times and we shared a stage at the Steppenwolf, but he read my work because Rick Kogan, himself a Chicago institution and Studs' heir, gave Studs my book. I received a beautiful letter from Studs upon his reading it and am honored to pick up a pen in the same city he recorded in.
Tell me about Everyday People?
Realist portraits of people I see often, or have met once; a meditation on Chicago and American History. In the tradition of Carl Sandburg and Gwendolyn Brooks, trying to record the stories in front of my nose and capture the beauty and brutality of the city, to hold in the same moments this paradox and seeming contradiction that is Chicago/America. In this city, in the same moment we have a governor to evict and a President-elect, now President. This is typical of our city, our country.
How did you bring together the Louder Than a Bomb series? And what has been your strongest tool for battling apathy within the youth?
Nine years ago an amazing poet and educator, Anna West, and I along with Young Chicago Authors, created LTAB. We were finding in classrooms all over the city young people who responded well when asked what they thought about the world(s) they inhabit. Chicago has a failing public school system, and part of the reason for this is that students are not engaged in the classroom because they are not asked to connect the learning to their everyday lives. Our pedagogy is to invert the teacher-student model, and simply ask students to become reporters and recorders of the neighborhoods they live in. They become, in the words of Mos Def and Talib Kweli, "real-life documentarians."
It's a loaded question, but what about Chicago inspires you?
The people. We are a proud and great and segregated city filled with contradictions and tradition and hope. We are the great American city, NY really being cosmopolitan and LA being plastic. As goes Chicago so goes the rest of the country, we are the heart center, and as of Nov. 4 the rest of the world got hip to that.
You seem to wear many different creative hats, is there any place you like to go just to relax and settle the mind?
Montrose Harbor, I got aunts in Michigan City and the local drive south and 41 through Gary are always chill. I recently became an artist in residence at the U of C and Hyde Park is a kind of oasis. I like film so the art houses in Chicago are pretty great, the Gene Siskel Center, the Landmark and Music Box. But for real though riding the train is kind of relaxing to me, comforting for some reason: the loops and the trains make the bodies huddled and quiet, the public intimacy of napping commuters, all these places.
Who are some of your favorite Chicago personalities?
Dr. Haki Madhubuti, Rick Kogan, Ang 13, Marc Smith, Rami Nashashibi, my aunt Joyce and cousins Jackie and Charlotte.